JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia – Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky arrived in Saudi Arabia on Friday to join a summit of Arab leaders, including the heads of wealthy Gulf states that have already given significant aid to Ukraine amid Russia’s invasion.
Make his last diplomatic tour days after barnstorming through several European capitals, Mr. Zelensky said he would meet with the kingdom’s leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and others. he wrote on Twitter that his trip was aimed “at improving bilateral relations and Ukraine’s ties with the Arab world.”
Saudi Arabia had invited Mr. Zelensky to attend the Arab League summit in the Saudi city of Jeddah. He is also expected to join the group 7 summit in Hiroshima, Japan, this weekend, either virtually or in person, as he tries to win commitments for continued arms and aid from the world’s richest democracies.
Key states in the Arab world have walked a fine line between Ukraine and Russia during the war. Oil-rich Saudi Arabia in particular has tried to position itself as a mediator and does not want to be seen as taking sides.
Saudi Arabia pledged $400 million in aid to Ukraine earlier this year. The United Arab Emirates, which has a close relationship with Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, has also pledged more than $100 million in aid to Ukraine.
A central focus for the US and Western allies has been trying to stop Russia from finding new weapons. U.S. and NATO officials have sought to curb Russia’s domestic manufacturing by imposing sanctions and export controls, and have put diplomatic pressure on countries to reject Russian requests for weapons.
Washington appears to have succeeded in this regard with at least one important Arab nation, Egypt.
While U.S. officials quietly pressured Cairo to supply artillery shells to Ukraine, U.S. intelligence agencies at the beginning of the year gathered information, first reported by the Washington Postthat Egyptian officials can instead supply arms to Russia.
After a diplomatic push from the US and Britain, the Egyptians appeared to support the Americans. According to a subsequent intelligence reportEgyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi rejected the idea of supplying the Russian side.
U.S. officials said Egyptian state-owned arms manufacturers have agreed to a contract to make artillery shells for the United States and American contractors, who in turn will ship them to Ukraine.
The Arab League summit will be the first attended by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in 13 years. He was long ostracized regionally and internationally for his violent suppression of the Arab Spring uprising in Syria more than a decade ago, which grew into a long civil war that continues, although the fighting has stopped.
Mr. al-Assad’s forces are used Chemical Weapons against their own people during the war, which has killed hundreds of thousands of people and displaced millions. Russia provided significant support to the Syrian dictator in that war and used tactics, including attacks on civilian targetswhich it has since employed in Ukraine.
Arab League summits are typically fixed affairs of mostly regional interest, but al-Assad’s re-alignment has attracted considerable attention, including criticism from some US lawmakers and from Syrians opposed to his rule. It has also sparked controversy in the region, where many are uncomfortable with the idea of relegitimizing a leader accused of war crimes.
Mr. Zelensky’s arrival in Jeddah seemed likely to divert some attention from Mr. al-Assad’s presence.